CARING FOR GRASS = CLASS: Caring for Your Baseball/Softball Field with Limited Resources

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,”

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

            One time during late August, I was sitting in a conference room at the IHSA office in Bloomington, Illinois. This is where the state advisory committee meets once a year.  It was an eclectic group of coaches from every corner of the state.  Sitting immediately to my right was a coach from a more affluent Chicago suburb.  He reminded me of Tony Soprano in stature and attitude, likeable but one that made me leery to approach. The previous spring, his team had won the 2A state title, when Illinois was only two classes, not four, as it is currently.  I knew this because, he was talking about it with some of the other suburban coaches that were congratulating him. Also, he was wearing a ring the size of a Volkswagen. It was really cool.  I sat back to listen to him speak.  Maybe I could pick up a pointer or some secret to get my team to that level.  I didn’t hear any secret strategies.  What I did hear was the difference in resources amongst schools his size and a school our size.  Our schools were in the same class despite his school having about 1,700 more students.   He was discussing their booster club that had a budget of $80,000 and that was strictly for baseball!  He discussed the 11 coaches on his staff.  In between my intermittent drooling episodes, I began to hear him discuss their field.  It sounded like a college field with the sprinkler system, stadium seating, new lighting, prescription dirt, and two other diamonds for the freshman and sophomore teams.   Then he mentioned the team of field maintenance men that kept the fields in tip-top shape.   We were competing in the same state class, but our worlds couldn’t have been further apart.  Now I don’t fault this coach for any of these differences.  He has a great job and does a great job utilizing the resources at his disposal.  He has the hardware to prove it.  My focus is on how the “have-nots”, which are more common than the program I just described, can do great things with very little capital.

            It is very easy for someone who comes from a program that has barrels of money to look at someone else’s diamond and say it’s “bush”.  Chances are that guy hasn’t picked up a rake since he’s been there.  His team of maintenance people who keep the field up are proof of that. The average coach must get his hands a little dirty in order to stay out of the bush category.  I’ll be the first to admit that 20 years ago our diamond was in that category.  For example, there were so many rocks in the infield we would occasionally walk around with buckets and collect them in order to get them off.  Also, for the first 90 years of our program’s existence we didn’t have dugouts.  We just put two wooden benches about 40 feet away from home plate to sit on.  Do you think that might have been a hair on the dangerous side? Hmmm, I wonder?  There’s nothing like dodging foul balls all afternoon. One season while playing as a freshman at my high school, I can remember a 4 foot mound of dirt that sat in the middle of right field.  I’m surprised other coaches didn’t just pack it up when they saw what a mess it was. 

            99% of all junior high and high school baseball fields leave something to be desired.  It’s really just like buying a house.  There’s always something to improve.  It’s just a matter of taking on the battles one at a time.  Improvement on our field began with a new prescription dirt surface.  The coaches that preceded me had seen it on other diamonds.  They lined up the equipment for excavation of the old dirt and spreading of the new.  Many times, jobs that require big equipment like trenchers or a backhoe require seeking volunteer time from local contractors.  More often than not they’re glad to do it.  Chances are they have a son or nephew that plays baseball. When everything was all done that diamond took rain better and was flatter than any in our conference.  Over the next 10 years, different improvements such as, a donated scoreboard, fenced in dugouts, a new backstop, and others were added. Some jobs are little, and some are huge. Here are some tips for getting them done:

1)   Find money from different avenues.   A school’s budget, fundraising, and seeking corporate donations, are all sources.  The first place to start is with your school or affiliated booster organization.  But don’t be surprised if you run into a brick wall when money is concerned.  The best way to approach them is with an organized proposal. Let them know that you’ve researched the most cost-effective way to get your pet project done.  Next, have a fundraiser.  There are a myriad of ideas out there for raising dollars. I’ve heard of everything from magazines sales to playing a 100 inning game.  Lastly, many corporations set money aside for donations.  Writing a few letters is never a bad idea.  Always address it to their “Community Relations Department”.  I have a friend who works for a nationally recognized insurance company.  He helped us received up to $250 every year.

2)   Do many of the cosmetic things yourself.  If you have a vision for the way your field should look, then get up and do it.  Cleaning up trash, weed trimming, straightening out edging, and painting are all economically miniscule projects that really require someone who is willing to work.

3)   Ask for help.  Parents, players, and school custodians are all your friends.  Some parents are dying to help you.  It gives them the same feeling of accomplishment that you get when a job is finished.  I had one parent that after a conversation with me fundraised over $2000 dollars on his own for an outdoor batting cage.  The players help put it up and take it down each season.   Ultimately, my favorite group of guys at our school is our custodians.  I don’t know what it is, but they love baseball.  They would much rather be working on a baseball field than be all kooked up in the school cleaning a chalkboard. In fact, one of our custodians coached a state champion summer league team.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS: How Baseball Players & Coaches Need to Dress

“Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story.”

Mason Cooley, City Aphorisms


Like it or not, we live in a very appearance oriented society.  We are always being judged on our appearance. The world of sports is no different.  Therefore, it is extremely important for players and coaches to present themselves appropriately at all times.  Expectations for game and practice attire should be established and maintained throughout the season.  Now I’m not exactly a fashion plate, just ask my wife, but I do think that appropriate dress around the diamond does send a business-like atmosphere to the ball field.

 I’m a very big advocate of uniformity of uniforms.  As redundant as that may sound, if you pay attention to some teams, they may have the same jerseys and pants on, but they are dressed as differently as they could possibly be.  They may have 6 different colors of undershirts and 3 different colors of cleats.  That is so bush, I can’t stand it.   When I took over at my school, the first thing I attacked was the shoe color.  Timing was everything.  I did not feel comfortable with telling the team about this on the first day of practice, because many of them would’ve already paid a good chunk of change for shoes at that point.  I wanted to give every prospective player and their parents plenty of warning about this situation.  The perfect time to announce this change was during our fall off-season meeting.  Now each player had almost 5 months warning.  As well, about 6 weeks prior to our first game, I invited a representative from an area sporting goods store to come to our school and sell the shoes to our players.  This concept worked out very well, because typically the store will give schools a discount if they know they will sell a good amount of shoes. To make sure it was going to be a good-sized order, I invited our girls’ softball team in on the sale. As well, I could tell the store to only sell red shoes (our school color).  This created an absolute, win-win-win situation.  I’m happy with the color, the players are happy with the fancy styles, and the store is happy with a big sale. 

The next order of business was the undershirts.  I understand that only a small portion of the shirt shows outside of the jersey.  And very often they are unnoticeable.  I notice, so I know other coaches notice.  That bothers me.  Unfortunately, with my miniscule budget, I could not afford to purchase the undershirts for our players.  So, I was forced to find a way for the players to cooperate.  The first thing I did was to tell them that they will not be on our field or even get on the bus without a red undershirt.  That went along way, as you could imagine. Although, I wanted our players to be able to get an affordable undershirt since it would have to come from their pocket.  So we started ordering, “spirit packs”.  A spirit pack is something that many teams do for their players.  It is simply and order form for school logo apparel like sweatshirts, t-shirts, stocking caps, and etc. Many schools use these as fundraisers.  I used ours for functional clothing items. So, I sold the items to our players at cost.  Our players could get a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, and sweatpants for under $50.  They were not required to buy any of it. But it gave them easy, affordable access to proper game underclothes and functional practice gear.  The really cool thing was the feeling that I’d get when I’d see a player walking down the street wearing a piece of this clothing that had our program’s name on it.  Even better than that is seeing the players’ little 9 and 10 year old brothers wearing these items.  You know that they can’t wait to be part of the program.

The last piece of bush I need to trim from the players’ apparel was our caps.  Yes, we all had identical caps, at the beginning of the season.  The end of the season was a different story.  I guess it was cool to write on them and fray the edges of the caps.  It may have been cool to them, but I couldn’t stand it.  Again, I was in a financial pickle. Our players had to purchase their own caps.  They shelled out the money for the caps, and I couldn’t afford to purchase too many extra caps.  I despise my weak budget with a passion.  During some off-season contemplation on this dilemma, I thought of a compromise.  While cutting the grass in my yard, I took of my cap.  I looked at the area under my bill where every season I wrote my jersey number with permanent marker.  Of course, the reason for doing that is so I didn’t lose my hat.  I decided to allow my players to write what ever they wanted on their hat, as long as it was under the bill.  This idea is similar to how some restaurants and bars have graffiti boards in their restrooms, thus discouraging someone from defacing the entire area.  This was perfect for our team.  They could write their girlfriends’ names or their favorite band logo on this portion of their hat and it didn’t really show.  Some of them actually wrote their number there too.

Practice apparel just as important as game apparel.  In the ideal situation, each player would be issued a practice jersey and pants.  I know of one school in our conference that does that, and it is so non-bush.  Budgets ultimately prevail though.  There are the 3 requirements for our players’ practice clothes:

1)   Long, athletic pants.  The old saying, “Practice how you play,” comes to mind. This means no shorts.  Occasionally, as a reward, I will allow shorts during a hot portion of the season. Sweatpants, jogging pants, or a spare pair of baseball pants are all acceptable.  Although, this is the only way to really get in a quality base running practice.  Players simply will not slide in shorts and if they do they will do so half-heartedly.  Players usually get hurt when they don’t go full speed.

2)   No music oriented or inappropriate t-shirts.  By inappropriate, I mean foul language or alcohol related.  That is very easy to enforce, because it is usually against most school dress codes anyway. If it is against school rules, it has to be against team rules.  The shirts that they wear to practice must be athletic in nature.  It may have their favorite football or basketball team on it. A plain white t-shirt from K-mart would be great.  As far as the music shirts go, they can where those at a party on Saturday night. When they’re at my practice, they need to look like athletes.  By the way, I am huge music nut.  I’ve seen Metallica 9 times, Van Halen three times, and even Willie Nelson at the Illinois State Fair when I was 5 years old, but I don’t wear their t-shirts to practice.

3)   Caps. I don’t care if we are inside during rain or cold weather, or if it’s 90 degrees in the shade.  BASEBALL PLAYERS WEAR CAPS!!!  In fact, I keep one or two extremely ugly caps in our equipment shed in case someone forgot their own cap.  They rarely forget after noticing my choice of extra caps.  I especially like the pink furry one.  Seriously though, I do allow the players to wear stocking caps over the top of their ball caps on particularly cold, early spring practices. 

 As a coach, I feel responsible for setting an appropriate example during games and at practices.  The clothes that coaches wear should be athletic and baseball specific.  High school and junior high age players need to be shown how to dress for practice.  At practice, I try to dress the way that I expect the players to, following the same rules listed above.  If a coach dresses inappropriately, he shouldn’t expect much more from his players.  I also realize that many coaches come straight from a blue-collar job site in order to coach.  To the greatest extent possible, they should try to change clothes.  Wearing blue jeans to a practice, or even worse, a game, is bush league squared.   At games, a coach should wear the team uniform.  There are some instances, like summer league games, where it is totally acceptable for the coach to wear shorts.  It is fine if they are presentable, like nice khakis.  Basketball shorts or cutoffs would definitely fall into the realm of bush.  Finally, being overweight is not an excuse to not wear the uniform. If Tommy Lasorda could do it, so can you.

One last pet peeve of mine is coaches that wear a wristwatch during games.  A coach that is constantly looking at his watch during a game sends a poor body language message to everyone around him.  It is as though he has something better to do.  I take my watch off before the first pitch of every game.  During pre-game the watch is useful.  Most of the time teams receive a time limit on their pre-game routine.  You want to stay on time, because umpires despise coaches that don’t allow the game to get started on time.  But once the game is on the watch is unnecessary. At practices though, a watch is an absolute necessity.  Good coaches follow a practice plan that is time oriented and get their players out at a respectable time.